The Second Term Begins

On Monday, January 21st, we saw the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, his first act in his second four-year term. After the speeches and the national anthem and the benediction, most networks—MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC—moved into discussions of the events remaining in the ceremonial day. There was one segment on CBS in which Bob Schieffer, demonstrating again the inane (and possibly partisan) absence from reality that he displayed in moderating the presidential debate, stated that there was no overarching theme and no call to action in the president’s inaugural address. He somehow had missed all the references to “we the people” and the necessary tasks that we all could accomplish if we all worked together. To quote the president, “Our journey is not complete…”, “You and I as citizens have an obligation to shape the debate…”, and the final sentence, “With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

In general the other commentators, being either more aware or less partisan, recognized that the inaugural message, the theme powerfully expressed in both the president’s speech and the poem by Richard Blanco, was unity; Americans joining Americans to push forward the tasks our nation needs to complete. There was recognition of the need to compromise and the likelihood of imperfect results that would not satisfy everyone, but an appeal to continue decades of progress.

Over on Faux News, meanwhile, the pundits immediately followed the event by referring vaguely to policies that President Obama was planning “to jam down our throats.” Many Republicans were quoted as saying that the president’s speech had promoted a partisan agenda and that his comments were divisive. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell called it an “unabashedly far-left-of-center inauguration speech.” Well, that could be true, but only if you accept the GOP’s extreme right-wing position that maintaining the national infrastructure, and taking care of the poorest among us, and protecting Medicare and Social Security, and reducing the threat of environmental disaster caused by global warming, are all extreme socialist proposals. Clearly, Monday’s inspirational inauguration has failed to persuade the right wing to adjust their program and usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation.

I. of course, have no reason to compromise my own political preferences, which are somewhat left of center, although I recognize and accept that politicians do, and must, make deals. My job, as a citizen, is to try to convince politicians that they should see things my way, hoping that they will move in that direction when the time comes to craft new laws. So what is it that I want Barack Obama to work for in the next four years? This is some of it:

(1) Continue to appoint federal officials who will support the rights of ordinary individuals instead of the wishes of corporations and the demands of the powerful and wealthy. The president has managed to reverse the leadership philosophy of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights so that it is once again performing its duties as the national civil rights watchdog, a task it neglected for most of the Bush years. Through much of his first term he also fought to appoint members to the National Labor Relations board who would support the rights of workers instead of corporations. This he has almost accomplished despite strong resistance from Republicans in the Senate. His appointments of financial managers and regulators have not been as impressive, but the choice of Mary Jo White to head the SEC may be a sign of improvement. Stay tuned.

(2) Accelerate the appointment of federal judges and push for more left-of-center judges like Goodwin Liu. Professor Liu is highly qualified to be a judge, a widely recognized legal scholar. He is a leading advocate of judicial restraint in relation to legislative actions, quite the opposite of the types of conservative activists who were commonly appointed by President Bush. The response to Liu’s nomination to the federal bench was described by the L.A. Times (June 1, 2011): “How times have changed. In 2005, when Democrats balked at confirming some of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, Senate Republicans widely declared that filibustering a judicial nominee violates the Constitution. Late last month, however, Senate Republicans embraced the tactic, almost unanimously joining a filibuster of professor Goodwin Liu’s nomination to a federal appeals court.” The GOP minority in the Senate has delayed hearings, placed both public and anonymous holds on nominations, and filibustered, in their efforts to maintain the conservative bias currently found among federal judges after the eight-year Bush reign. President Obama must do all he can to move the judiciary back toward the left. That, of course, includes the Supreme Court, following what he has already done with the appointments of Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. All we need is a vacancy or two—if only justices Scalia and Thomas would cooperate.

(3) Cancellation of the military’s massive expenditures on the “Pacific pivot”, the continuing effort to build new U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia to more effectively surround China. We already have more than 200 military bases in the Pacific. So why are we building more, in the process destroying pristine habitat, tearing out coral reefs, and threatening the homes and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Asian families?

(4) Continuing resistance, using the veto if necessary, to the misguided “austerity” program of severely cutting social expenditures. Austerity rollbacks will only push us back into recession.

The options above are the relatively easy steps, the ones that don’t require pushing legislation through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. There are more options, many of them enumerated in the February 11th issue of The Nation magazine.

(5) That brings us to the more difficult task—pushing or guiding some useful, and in many cases necessary, legislation through Congress, such as:
(a) Comprehension immigration reform, to include a non-punitive path to citizenship for people currently living in the United States, without making them go back to their country of origin;
(b) A version of the “Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions, similar to the ones passed recently by Germany, France, and 9 other European countries. Such a tax would provide billions in income and would help reduce the current volatility caused by high-volume market trading;
(c) Election reform legislation, to include the Voter Empowerment Act, which would set minimum national standards for voter registration and election procedures, and the LINE Act, which would set minimum levels for numbers of voting machines and poll workers in every precinct (so nobody would have to wait in line for hours);
(d) Meaningful action to reduce the increase in global warming, including measures to reduce pollution and to stimulate the development and use of alternative energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases;
(e) Significant tax simplification measures which would eliminate as many tax loopholes and subsidies as possible, make capital gains taxable at the same rate as other income, and create a truely progressive income tax system, one that would eliminate future deficits by fully funding current levels of federal social expenditures.

That’s all I can think of, for now. It is a big list, and I know that getting any of this done will not be easy, especially given the current political climate (see my blog entry from September 4th, “Obama Accomplished Nothing …”). I also recognize that there will be compromises on the way, as there were with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). But President Obama helped push through both the PPACA and the stimulus bill that helped end the worst recession. Perhaps he can achieve more. Perhaps all of us can help push our representatives in that direction. Perhaps we, as voters, can continue our 2012 election trend and give the president even more support in Congress in 2014. I remain optimistic.

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